50th Anniversary Celebration Honors WKDU’s History of Engagement

A special illustration celebrating WKDU’s 50 years on air. Image courtesy WKDU.
A special illustration celebrating WKDU’s 50 years on air. Image courtesy WKDU.

It was almost half a century ago this week that Drexel University’s independent student-operated radio station, WKDU Philadelphia 91.7 FM, first started broadcasting music and creating immersive experiences for generations of music-loving Dragons to learn the ins and outs of radio programming and community involvement.

To look back at what’s been played and accomplished at the free-format, non-commercial station over the years — and also, importantly, plan for the future with a fundraising campaign to support a technological infrastructure upgrade — WKDU has organized a week-long birthday celebration from July 10–17. The mix of in-person and streaming shows and events is bringing together current WKDU students, alumni, listeners and community members.

A full schedule of the events and shows can be found on a special anniversary WKDU website. Upcoming events on the schedule include an on-air alumni marathon from July 15–17, as well as archival WKDU zines from the ’90s released July 12, a compilation CD released July 13 and limited-edition merchandise released July 14. The celebrations will end July 17 — WKDU’s actual birthday — with an outdoor bash at Drexel Park (weather permitting) from 2–8 p.m. for all past and present WKDU members and listeners. WKDU supporters can contribute donations to fund the station’s infrastructure upgrade until July 24.

A group of WKDU personnel led by WKDU Program Director Madeline Avarese, an entertainment and arts management student in the Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, have been planning the anniversary since April, after realizing last year that the timely anniversary was coming up. Station Manager Derek Hengemihle, an operations and supply chain management student in the LeBow College of Business, reached out to alumni — or, as they’re called at WKDU, “inactive DJs” — to encourage engagement and participation; Development Director Cameron Vickens, an entertainment and arts management major, set up and coordinated efforts for fundraising; Production Director David Juro ’21, curated and created a compilation CD highlighting a variety of artists, including those from the Philly area, with all proceeds benefitting charity; Creative and Merchandise Director Keagan Clark ’19 handled aspects of creative design for the anniversary; and Personnel Director Natalie Clark ’21 and General Manager Bartosz Jaskulski, an electrical engineering technology student in the College of Engineering, also provided help and guidance. Former WKDU General Manager Allison Durham ‘19 created an archival website documenting and detailing WKDU’s 50 years of history, complete with archival images and oral histories.

Making sure that alumni were involved and welcomed was a major component of the celebrations — and over 50 “inactive DJs,” from mostly every decade, are participating in the events, from tuning in to meeting up to having archival shows aired to hosting their own shows (for some, for the first time since graduating). A majority of the alumni are from “The Black Experience,” a highly influential part of WKDU’s first decade. Many alumni have also signed up who were on air 1985–1992 years; prior to that time, WKDU had briefly lost its station license due to mismanagement, and the revival of the station resulted in a passionate group of people dedicated to WKDU. A group of alumni who were involved with Drexel’s radio station immediately before or after it became WKDU recently came together for an independent Zoom discussion and presentation organized by former early WKDU general manager Jay Myers ’73, who owns his own radio production company. Currently, several alumni (mostly those from the 2010s) contribute to a majority of the station’s programming, and community engagement and interaction has always been a hallmark, and a highlight, of WKDU.

“I always say to myself that while WKDU is still classified as a Drexel organization, Drexel University wants its students to be civically engaged. And not only does WKDU benefit Drexel, it also benefits the city, the greater city of Philadelphia. We’ve also been very participant in concerts and promoting bands and giving underground artists the coverage and support that they deserve within the local area,” said Avarese, highlighting WKDU’s pre-pandemic fundraising events like WKDU’s Electronic Music Marathon and ‘Thrifty Discos’ at Philly Aids Thrift to raise funds for local organizations. “Obviously, the benefits of joining WKDU are that you can meet new people and you can be a DJ and you can run your own show. But I think community and outreach and having a support system there, not only between Drexel University students, but also getting in contact with those in the city of Philadelphia, is what has kept our station strong.”

WKDU traces its roots back to carrier-current station WMAX back in 1958 (which later became WXDT 830 c.c. on the AM dial in 1962), and once it switched to FM, rebranded as WKDU and first began broadcasting in 1972, reaching out to listeners and participating in and contributing to a sense of local community was evident from its first shows. One program, “The Black Experience,” helmed by five members of the University’s Black Student Union, made up an overwhelming majority of the station’s radio programing back then and made a name for itself by providing airwaves, music, news and other opportunities for Black musicians, artists, reporters, and community members to find a sense of community. The students distinguished themselves as “communicators,” rather than “DJs,” because they wanted to make it clear they were also engaging with the community and supporting the community through their time on air.

WKDU “The Black Experience” communicators in 1977. Photo credit: Russell Jones, who was an active member of WKDU from 1972–1981.

When it came to celebrating WKDU’s 50 years, the current students made sure to honor those who contributed to the station’s first decade. The first day of the anniversary celebrations, July 11, showcased “The Black Experience in Music 50th Reunion,” in which about 20 communicators shared music, reminisced about their time at WKDU and interviewed local artists and performers. Archival shows from “The Black Experience,” as well as other notable and historic WKDU programming, have also been played during the week.

“For, let’s say, the first decade of WKDU’s existence, ‘The Black Experience’ was WKDU and WKDU was ‘The Black Experience,’” said Hengemihle. “Almost all of our programing was Black cultural music, like jazz or R&B, and local community activists would come on and spread word to the Black community on air, and that was WKDU for its initial existence.”

In the ’80s, WKDU held one of its first annual music marathons, the Reggae Music Marathon, to contribute to Caribbean hurricane relief efforts, and came together to promote and hold concerts on and off campus — early predecessors of future signature events and civic engagement that today’s members will recognize. The station distinguished itself at a time when college radio was becoming more lauded and prominent (it won Philadelphia Magazine’s “Best of Philly 1987” Radio Station Award) for its diverse programming.

During the ’90s, the station switched to 24/7 broadcasting, released its first compilation (1993’s “Scrapple!” box set), grew the quarterly zine Communiqué originally started in the late ’80s, and became known for promoting electronic music (especially through the Electronic Music Marathons held from 1997 to 2007) and punk music (Fugazi played its second-ever show on campus and Bikini Kill performed on Drexel’s parking garage roof).

In the early 2000s, the station started broadcasting online and at all hours and sharing videos of in-studio performances. By the 2010s, the station received national recognition as College Music Journal’s “Station of the Year,” the industry publication’s highest honor, in 2010 and 2011; and gained prominence on campus when DJs hosted basement shows and partnered with local successful production company R5 Productions.

A more detailed look at WKDU’s history, complete with archival photographs, media, stories and quotes generated by current and former members, can be found at the newly created WKDU Archives site.

“With college radio specifically and the environment of being able to be in the station and make big decisions independently of the University or your parents or anything like that — that sticks with you. People vividly remember their experiences with WKDU. It’s a particular place at Drexel for students. It’s a safe haven where you show up and there’s this golden opportunity for you to get involved in something and really make it your own and meet a lot of really great people,” said Hengemihle. “It’s certainly the most meaningful thing of my entire college experience, and every single person that I talk to has resonated with that. When I’ve been talking to alumni for this anniversary, nobody has just been like, ‘Oh yeah, I was a DJ and I’ll come back if you want me to.’ Everybody replies with the same amount of enthusiasm and excitement.”

The timing of the event — coming after over a year of the COVID-19 pandemic — was particularly fortuitous, and not just because it created a way for people to come together in person (and, still, virtually). As general manager, Jaskulski had been searching for a way to upgrade technology in the studio that would have still been there when student DJs from the late ’90s were Drexel students; a fundraising campaign was put together in honor of the 50th anniversary to push WKDU’s analog infrastructure into the digital era and, also, possibly provide new furniture in the control room to replace, for example, DIY desks made by past WKDU DJs out of doors. Merchandise (to be dropped July 14) was also created to help that endeavor.

“These kinds of technological upgrades are something that I’d really like to accomplish as general manager,” said Jaskulski. “I really want to see ourselves be ready and prepared for the next 50 years.”

For Jaskulski, Avarese and Hengemihle, learning more about WKDU’s history, operations and community was an experience they’ll take with them even after graduation — perhaps something they can discuss at the next WKDU anniversary.

“Before, I just kind of knew my circle —the current generation, I guess you could say — of executives and officers and students who are at the station. But I’ve learned and have grown to appreciate the larger community as a whole and how our history has made us what we are today,” said Avarese. “And I’ve been frequently coming in contact with alumni who are older, and I hear about how they still come back to this radio station and remember it, and that just puts a warm smile on my face. I want to do everything that I possibly can to make sure this makes our alumni smile too.”

And while the work of former alumni will be highlighted for the event, the participation and involvement of today’s students — future alumni — cannot be overlooked.

“It makes me really happy to see that level of enthusiasm is not only found in the alumni these days, but it can also be found and still many undergraduate DJs at this point for sure,” said Jaskulski. “All of these things that have happened for the anniversary has happened because the dedication of the undergraduate DJs started making this possible.”

Interested in celebrating WKDU’s anniversary? Visit 50.wkdu.org to learn more about the upcoming schedule, read about the station’s history, contribute to its future success and purchase limited-edition 50th anniversary merchandise.